I recently discovered a very fascinating article that changed everything about Shakespeare for me. It was a transcript from a 2016 discussion between Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance - both great Shakespeare performers, that I have been very fortunate to see on stage. So, imagine my surprise when I read that both strongly believe that William Shakespeare (as in the son of John Shakespeare, glover of Stratford) is not the author of the works that are so loved around the globe, and they had created a petition to have this formally changed! What?!
As a Shakespeare enthusiast, I was of course aware of this argument, but I had no idea there was a petition about it. The Declaration of Reasonable Doubt was created in 2007 by Jacobi and Rylance, not as an anti-Shakespeare campaign but as a starting point to make a well-researched and valid argument be taken seriously. And what a great argument they put forward! If you have a free moment, I highly recommend reading the transcript and taking a look at: https://www.doubtaboutwill.org/ It’s very informative, but as this article will explore, does our enjoyment of these world renowned plays rest solely on whom has written them and does it matter if William Shakespeare is not that author? In my opinion no and here is why.
Over the last century, conspiracy theorists have begun to question in avid detail whether William Shakespeare actually wrote his plays or was in fact a name used to disguise the real mastermind. To me, this alone sounds like a plausible Shakespearean plot, and I can see why it was used as a subject matter in a Hollywood film (Anonymous). The main argument against Shakespeare is the fact his writing is so rich with references to law terms, international languages, music, culture, medicine, the behaviours, and etiquette of the aristocracy, etc, and how could someone from such humble beginnings have the knowledge to explore these areas in such vast detail? For Derek Jacobi, Mark Rylance, and others like them, the answer is simple: he didn’t write them. Instead, they have pointed to Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Why? Because he moved in circles that would have allowed him to have the experiences to write about the world Shakespeare’s characters inhabit. Potentially, this is plain and simply pure snobbery, but it is an enticing argument. To help understand it let us look a little closer.
It is also claimed by Jacobi & Rylance that Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare, and his mother, Mary Shakespeare, were both illiterate. I find this unlikely when considering the social standing John Shakespeare held within the Stratford-Upon-Avon community. We know for a fact that John Shakespeare was a member of the council and became mayor as his name is professionally carved on the board of the council meeting chamber. Surely to hold such an established office basic literacy skill would be required. I am not saying he was the poet his son would become, but I argue he was not the illiterate fool some make him out to be. Of course, we know John Shakespeare was not a squeaky-clean individual. There are law records that feature the black-market wool trade he was associated with that would ultimately end his time as a town councillor. So, perhaps he was a light criminal, but he was a literate one. Luckily, John Shakespeare still had his glove making trade to fall back on, but it was the money he earned from his wool trading that contributed a considerable amount to his yearly income. In fact, Historian Michael Wood mentions in his BBC documentary Shakespeare’s Mother that after John lost his position over half the family home was divided into apartments that were let out to neighbours to make ends meet. This is certainly humble beginnings, but how does this impact our opinion of William Shakespeare and his writing?
I mention this because I believe before John Shakespeare had his moment of social disgrace, his son William had attended the local Grammar school. Being the son of an established figure in Stratford society why would he not attend school? And what if when the Shakespeare family found themselves in financial hardship, they pulled William out of school and sent him to work? I argue that despite the interruption to his education, William’s time at the Grammar would still have opened his mind to Latin, Greek Mythology and world references that would later litter his scripts. His later education is harder to explain as Jacobi & Rylance note that unlike Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare did not attend University. Yes, this is true we have no records of a university education and so Jacobi and Rylance would argue, could someone with no university education and an interrupted secondary education have the worldly knowledge to write these plays? If we take his secondary education as fact the ability to read would have been a necessity. Books were not an unheard-of media and since the reformation in the early 1500s, they had become more accessible to the lower classes, particularly London. So yes, I believe he certainly could have written these plays without a university education. And when debating how Shakespeare honed his skills to go down in history as England’s greatest playwright, enjoyed all over the world, maybe he simply did his homework. Jacobi and Rylance put an interesting argument forward, but I find here there are more facts for Shakespeare than against him. I argue that on arriving in London, books and perhaps inspiration and guidance from the leading playwrights of the time, helped to kick start his theatrical career. But on this point how much help did Shakespeare’s contemporaries provide and was it perhaps more than a ‘little’ help?
It is important to remember here that our records on Shakespeare are very limited. There are large gaps in our Shakespeare timeline. Historian Bill Bryson jokes in the first chapter of his book Shakespeare that the point of writing the book was “to see how much of Shakespeare we can know, really know, from record. Which is one reason, of course, it’s so slender.” Having read Bryson’s book I can agree that in comparison to other Shakespeare biographies it is indeed rather slim. This does not undermine its fantastic breadth of knowledge but highlights our lack of genuine facts about Shakespeare’s life. What is known and recorded, however, is that when Shakespeare arrived in London, Bryson places this mid to late 1580s, Christopher Marlowe was already a well-established tragedian playwright. Tamburlaine, The Jew of Malta and Doctor Faustus were already huge successes before Shakespeare graced the London theatre scene. Other contemporise such as Ben Jonson, John Fletcher and Thomas Nashe had also brought many loved plays to London audiences. Could it be, therefore, that these already well-known playwrights influenced and inspired Shakespeare with his own writing? And what if they didn’t just influence him, but also helped co-write some of his plays too? Arguments have been circulating as to whether Shakespeare had been the sole writer of his plays. Several academic studies have made clear comparisons between Richard III and the writing of Christopher Marlowe and with Pericles and John Fletcher. Should this cause offence if the academic conclusions are true? I do not believe so. As a nation we are very proud of our connection to Shakespeare, whether we are theatre goers or not. Even if our memory of Shakespeare is being forced to recite the iambic pentameter in a stuffy English Literature classroom there is a feeling that Shakespeare is ours. Arguably we have set him on a theatrical pedestal where it seems he can do no wrong. But in doing so it leaves us to be biased and incredibly defensive when the validity of his work is put into question. We know writing partnerships happened at this time. For example: The Witch of Edmonton boasts three playwrights: William Rowley, Thomas Dekker and John Ford and was enjoyed by Elizabethan audiences as well as modern audiences. So why can we not accept that Shakespeare may have co-written too?
Consider modern writing for a moment. Some of the world’s most popular shows and even films have several writers. Look at the long running entertainment sitcoms like Friends and The Big Bang Theory which both ran for 10 years. The success and popularity of these shows are not only a credit to the acting but the skill of the writing. Both shows have an incredible writing team, The Big Bang Theory boasting a team of roughly 25 [though not all contributed to every episode], that help make the show as topical and funny as it can be. As viewers we have no problem with this. The moment the iconic theme tune begins we are focused on plot lines and comedic dialogue and often do not bare the writer a moment’s thought. This does not mean we do not appreciate the hard work that goes into creating our favourite series but highlights that it is the content that we enjoy regardless of who has written it. Therefore, does it really matter if Shakespeare co-wrote some of his plays with other well-established authors? And does it then matter if William Shakespeare had no direct input in these well-loved plays and it was in fact Edward de Vere that was the true genius? Absolutely not. These questions are not set to undermine England’s hero of theatre, but helps to gain a better understanding of the world these wonderful plays were being written in. I believe the questions do not diminish Shakespeare’s skills as a playwright if he did co-write Richard III with Christopher Marlowe. It does not lessen the power and enjoyment of these plays if Shakespeare had not written any of them. Their power resides in their longevity and popularity of performance hundreds of years after being written.
Naturally as momentum has grown regarding this debate Hollywood has come knocking. In 2011 the film Anonymous caused a stir when William Shakespeare’s legitimacy to his plays was placed at the films centre. The plot explores the idea of Edward de Vere using a drunk, arrogant, illiterate Shakespeare to pretend to be the author of de Vere’s work. Although it is a somewhat entertaining film, I am still not convinced by the argument presented. Would such a pompous, constantly inebriated individual that the film makes Shakespeare out to be, not have spilt the beans at some point whether deliberately or accidentally whilst under the influence of alcohol? I find it difficult to believe that Edward de Vere was in fact Queen Elizabeth I son, unbeknownst to either of them. They later enter a romantic affair which results in another pregnancy and the birth of Henry Wriothesley. One pregnancy by the ‘Virgin Queen’ would be a hard enough secret to keep from the whole of the court let alone a second one and it being a product of incest, whether de Vere and Queen Elizabeth I knew it or not, just makes it even more impossible. How did her ladies in waiting keep the secret? I do not believe a secret on such a large scale could have remained hidden just as much as the idea of William Shakespeare being used to disguise the true author. Although both Jacobi and Rylance appear in the film they are not credited as writing it. How much input they had in regard to its content I don’t know, but surely they [as well as the viewer] can see this Hollywood interpretation on events, however entertaining, borderlines ridiculous. What factual evidence appears in this film is very slim if any appear at all. Could this also be said about the argument of Shakespeare’s legitimacy? Several other names have been put forward as possible suggestions of being the true author, Francis Bacon and even Christopher Marlowe [naturally he faked his own death] but as Bill Bryson states “…what no one has ever produced is the tiniest particle of evidence to suggest they actually did so.” In my opinion Bryson’s quote speaks volumes and underlines that our enjoyment of these plays is not impacted by these questions of authorship.
To conclude: does it matter who wrote these plays that are so regularly performed all over the world? To put it simply: No. These plays are here to stay. They are not going anywhere. The fact they have survived and remain so popular since being written 400 years ago, highlights the significance they continue to have today. Will knowing Shakespeare may have had help writing them affect an audience enjoyment of them? Of course not. If anything, it provides Hollywood with a good controversial story to exploit. If the plays had been written by a completely different author, could such a big secret be kept for such a length of time? I am sure Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance would answer yes, but even when the First Folio was published 7 years after Shakespeare’s death, no one muttered a word of doubt. So why have we started to do so now? Ben Johnson wrote a moving eulogy at the front of the Folio highlighting how well thought of Shakespeare was by his contemporaries. Could such a big secret have been kept from those that thought so highly of him and worked so closely with him? I respect completely the argument that is presented by The Declaration of Reasonable Doubt, but believe it raises more questions than it claims to answer. My strong belief continues that it does not matter who wrote these plays. Our enjoyment of them and their global popularity surpasses the author. Whoever the author turns out to be, whether William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, Christopher Marlow, Ben Johnson or even Edward de Vere we would enjoy the plays regardless. If you find yourself getting defensive when arguments arise over true authorship, remember that no matter who penned these plays a Shakespeare play authored by any other name would still be a Shakespeare play.